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‘Pull of art' drives Waif Mullins
WHERE: The Theater Gallery, 752 Plumas St., Yuba City.
WHEN: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., Wednesday - Friday, through Nov. 30.
Even as a kid growing up in the Yuba City farmworkers camp known as the Richland Housing Center, Waif Mullins knew he had a gift and a passion for art.
By 10, he was painting in oils, and by the time he entered his freshman year at Yuba City High School, he was selling his paintings to friends and sometimes to perfect strangers.
"While most kids at that age are insecure and unsure of themselves, I knew what I was supposed to do," he said.
Friends from those school years, who were reacquainted with Mullins in the weeks leading up to a high school reunion in October, brought the Chico-based artist back to his roots.
Now 63, his work is displayed at the Theater Gallery next to the Sutter Theater on Plumas Street. The exhibit runs through Nov. 30.
"This is a person who grew up in pretty dire circumstances," said Terri Tomlinson, director of the gallery and a fellow YCHS graduate. "He felt the pull of art as a child, and look where he is today."
Tomlinson gestures to the pastels and paintings, many of them depicting people in tropical settings or at a popular swimming hole in Butte County.
"Sunlight and Shade" features a teenager and young girl wading in a sun-drenched creek.
The creek, like many of the settings in Mullins' paintings, is in Bidwell Park in Chico.
"It's like you're looking at a photograph," said Fred Brown, a classmate and friend who admired Mullins' work earlier this week at the gallery. "All of us who went to school with Waif knew what he was going to be."
Mullins' family moved to Yuba City from Texarkana, Texas, when he was a child. He remembers picking peaches at about age 5.
"We initially stayed in the tin cabins. I remember watching the person paint the Richland Housing Center sign," he said. "Water and trash were at a central location by the street, and the showers were in the center of the block."
The 1955 flood moved them to temporary housing in Gridley. Eventually, the family moved up the waiting list at Richland and into a regular apartment there.
But poverty didn't leave a mark on the budding artist's identity. He remembers those years fondly.
"Some of the best times I've had were in the camp," he said. "We had lots of kids and lots of room. If you wanted to play football or baseball, all you had to do is holler, and there'd be enough kids."
At night, his imagination came alive.
Mullins remembers staying up late with his mother before he was old enough to attend the first grade.
"She would watch old movies on TV, and I would sit with a chalkboard in my lap and draw pictures," he said. "As soon as I was finished, I erased the picture and drew something else."
One year, he received a gift that, he said, made a real impact on his evolving skills as a draftsman.
"There was a toy store on the other side of the Chinese Lantern, and there was a Jon Gnagy art kit there," Mullins said. "I lusted about it for months."
His family bought him the kit for his birthday or for Christmas — he doesn't remember which.
"I read the little book that came with the kit, and then I'd look at art books in the library," he said.
The process of teaching himself through reading, observation, the study of other artists' work, and working things out himself on paper, he said, "was magic."
"You could take a pencil or a brush and some paint, and paper or a board, and by learning certain things, you could replicate what you saw," he said. "And if you draw it, you can make other people see it."
Mullins still carries a sense of wonder at the process of creating images with his mind, and some simple art supplies.
He balances the solitude of art making by keeping constant company with a small parrot named Pappi.
The bird talks to him while he works, and Mullins takes him with him nearly everywhere he goes.
And in the rarefied world of fine art, he has managed to carve out a distinctive niche.
After leaving Yuba City, he earned an art degree from Chico State and spent a decade in the Bay Area, working in paint and pastels. He returned to Chico five years ago with his wife, Beth, and continues to make art seven hours a day.
His art awards include a variety of juried exhibits and art magazines, and he stays active in professional art collectives, including a four-year stint as president of the Pastel Society of the West Coast.
CONTACT Nancy Pasternack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 749-4781. Find her on Facebook at /ADnpasternack or on Twitter at @ADnpasternack.